Compression as a Composition Tool

This article discusses compression as a composition tool. It illustrates how our choice of focal length impacts image compression. When we’re first starting out on our photographic journeys, we sometimes see focal length choice in a binary manner. For example… telephoto focal lengths for nature, and wide angle focal lengths for landscape. Broadening our use of focal lengths increases our creative latitude.

It can be beneficial to think of our choice of focal length as a powerful compression tool. Let’s take a quick look at a couple of images of the Pelorus Bridge in New Zealand to demonstrate this concept.

Pelorus Bridge, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 50 mm, efov 135 mm, f/8, 1/40, ISO-200

This first image makes the Pelorus Bridge look quite short. If we examine the details in the bridge construction we can count roughly 18 pairs of vertical supports. These supports appear stacked up very closely to one another. Now, let’s have a look at the same bridge, photographed at a different focal length.

Pelorus Bridge, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18.1 mm, f/8, 1/100, ISO-400

In the second image the bridge looks much longer and the spacing between the vertical bridge supports appears much wider. This is a simple demonstration of how our choice of focal length can impact the degree of compression in our photographs.

The first image was shot using a focal length of 50 mm, while the second image was captured using a focal length of 6.7 mm. Since my Nikon 1 J5 has a small 1″ sensor it has a crop factor of 2.7. So, if these same images would have been taken with a full frame camera the focal lengths used would have been 135 mm and 18 mm respectively, to get the same field-of-view as my Nikon 1 gear.

Thinking about our choice of focal length as an image compression tool can significantly impact how we compose our photographs. Let’s look at a few examples.

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 27.2 mm, efov 73.4 mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-160

At first blush this image of a bridge at Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park may seem like it was captured using a wide angle focal length. Since the trestle portion of the bridge is positioned far back in the composition this would be an easy assumption to make.

We may not initially notice how close the mountains in the background appear. Also, it may not be immediately apparent to us how short the distances are between the posts on the bridge. These factors indicate image compression… and the use of a longer focal length. In this case it was 27 mm with my Nikon 1 gear, or about 73 mm if a full frame camera would have been used.

The amount of compression we use in our compositions directly impacts how close various elements in a photograph appear in relation to each other. I think one of the reasons why some photographers do not readily share their EXIF data is because they don’t want other people to know how they have used this powerful tool of compression.

Gemstone Beach, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/160, ISO-160

Looking at the image above, it would be easy to assume that a longer focal length was used since the elements in the photograph are packed tightly together. The opposite is actually true. A wide angle focal length of 6.7 mm (or 18 mm with a full frame camera) was used to compose this image.

The pieces of driftwood, kelp etc. were all very close to the small cliff behind them. I chose to use a wide angle focal length to reduce the amount of compression in the photograph.

Using a wide angle focal length has the optical effect of pushing the various elements further away from each other. This makes the spacing between the elements look larger, and creates some ‘breathing space’ between them.

In order to compose the Gemstone Beach image above, and achieve the visual spacing I wanted between the elements, I had to position myself right up against the driftwood in the foreground of the image.

Cosy Nook, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 27.2 mm, efov 73.4 mm, f/8, 1/1000, ISO-800

Let’s have a quick look at the image above, captured at Cosy Nook, New Zealand. I wanted to pull the rock formation in the background of the photograph forward and reduce the amount of space between it and the feature rocks in the foreground. So… I used a longer focal length. Whenever we want to bring something in the background closer, we are increasing image compression… and using a longer focal length enables us to accomplish that task.

When composing your photographs think about how closely you want various elements in an image to appear. Do you want them to look closer together? Or, do you want them to look further apart with more breathing space between them? This will tell you how much compression you want to create in your image. More compression… longer focal lengths. Less compression… shorter focal lengths.

To bring your creative vision to life you’ll need to decide how physically close you need to be to foreground elements, and what focal length you need to use.

If you would like to read more about photographing in New Zealand, you may enjoy our eBook, New Zealand Tip-to-Tip. It is available for purchase and download at a cost of $12.99 Canadian.


Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using camera gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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7 thoughts on “Compression as a Composition Tool”

  1. Good lessons! I find that I use a longer focal length most often, but I don’t take a lot of landscape photos. I use it sometimes to get less background area, like behind a flower, to make the background less busy. Or just so I can get closer without scaring my subject away.

  2. Hi, first comment here.

    I understand what you mean and agree with the title 100%. I will add my point of view. For me, this is not a tool (because a tool is used only when needed) for me, in fact, focal length selection is the starting point of every photo. Even when the person behind the camera ignores it, they’re using it. When i started, i had a super zoom camera (35x) and a lot of ignorance, with the years i’ve realized how those focal lenghts slowed down my learing process (and that’s why i think the best lens to start is the 18-55 kit avoiding super zooms). I ignored how to handle this important aspect at that moment of my photography passion.

    Few people talk about this important element, people often cares more about luminosity of lenses. Ignoring this effect they choose the focal length randomly.

    I follow your site since months ago Mr. Thomas (i found you in PL, great site). I really like the way you use the little sensor on your Nikons, you make the most of it. Your photos have a lot of knowledge behind. I look at them and clearly see this. Focal lenght, composition and exposure is always on point (i know you like to preserve highlights). The level of shadow you recover and the noise reduction you make is great considering the sensor size. Sharpness is really high also, probably not done in Lightroom. Really hard to see people using the gear to the limit as you do.

    I will continue learning from your page. I like your style a lot.

    I woul like to see a step by step RAW edition from you in the future!

    Thanks fot the article, cheers. (Sorry my english)

    1. Hi Motographia,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion with your comment… I’m glad you’ve being enjoying my website! I agree that some folks use focal lengths without always understanding the impact that their decisions may have on their images. They seem to only focus on getting their subject framed, perhaps without understanding how that same framing can be achieved with a range of different focal lengths… as long as they use their feet!

      I’ve always preferred to do still photography with zoom lenses. Whenever possible I always try to capture my images so that I don’t need to crop them. I find that using zoom lenses gives me more control of my image framing… using zooms has not reduced my need to use my feet…

      You are correct that I do not use sharpening in Lightroom… actually I don’t ever remember using Lightroom at all. I did use Photoshop… and it is still a part of my process in post.


  3. Question: How does the unaided human eye tend to see these images? For example, would they be compressed like with a telephoto lens, uncompressed like with a wide angle lens, or somewhere in between (say with a FF 35 to 50 mm lens)?

    1. Hi William,

      From what I’ve been able to find on reference sites, the human eye has an angle-of-view of about 55-degrees which is roughly the same as a 43 mm lens on a full frame camera.


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